Posted in: history by bill-o on February 05, 2011

It played a key role in late Mideval and early modern British history and is a mentioned as one of the basic rights of Americans in the original, unamended Constitution of the United States. In fact, in the original 1787 Constitution that made almost no restrictions on the powers of the states, it is mentioned as being something that the states cannot do.

The concept is “attainder” and it is difficult to understand either British or American history without understanding what it is. To be “attained” is to be legally “singled out” for punishment. The “bill of attainder” prohibited by the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 9 (Congress) and Section 10 (the states)) refers to the legislative process of passing a law that singles out an individual or group of individuals for punishment. (Thus, bills of attainder are mentioned in Article I, the article about legislative powers.) Attainder laws are closely related to the concept of ex post facto (after the fact) laws. The founders of the U.S. were concerned about the separation of governmental powers: legislative, executive, and governmental. Decisions about crime and punishment, in their plan, ultimately came under the purview of the judiciary. Congressional attainder would have upset that balance between the three branches of the American government. It would have allowed the heat of public opinion to convict people of crimes via attainder, even if the courts ruled them to be not guilty. The prohibition against attainder remains a check against any possible “tyranny of the majority” against individual citizens, even though most Americans aren’t now aware of this. (James Madison argued in favor of outlawing laws of attainder in Federalist No. 44, arguing that they were “contrary … to every principle of sound legislation”.)

In the history of England, attainder was the ultimate legal sanction against a treasonous noble. Before the Tudor dynasty of kings and queens (1485-1603), during the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses, most of the men who held any significant position of authority in the English government were also peers (lords) of the realm. The word peer originates from the Latin word par (meaning “equal”). Peers (dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons) inherited their titles and associated privileges from their fathers, usually according to rules of strict male-line succession. Though dukes have the highest honor (precedence) amongst all of the peers and barons the lowest, all peers of the realm are in a sense equal (“on par”) with one another, as each one had an equal vote in the House of Lords. They were, in a sense, born into the family business of assisting the king in ruling his kingdom, and each one had the legal privilege of direct access to the sovereign. If a peer rebelled against the king and was arrested, the king could demand that Parliament pass an act of attainder against the peer. This act would revoke the title of the rebel lord. This revocation would also end the possibility of passing on that title to anyone else (son, grandson, nephew, etc.). Essentially, the title was “put to death”. An attained lord was thus reduced to the status of a commoner, and subject to punishments for commoners, such as burning at the stake. Since only peers were leaders of the body politic in pre-Tudor England, demotion from the peerage effectively ended a career in high politics, even for those who escaped the fate of execution after attainment. Those rebel peers who were killed in battle could still be attained after the fact (ex post facto).


Posted in: history by bill-o on May 09, 2009

Today, Shadows and Symbols is pleased to introduce a new category: history. With this new category for posts, we’ll be able to explore shadows and symbols of the past.


The military and political structure of the empire had evolved into a governmental system where the western and eastern halves of the empire each had one or two emperors. These emperors, at least in theory, ruled over supreme military commanders. The eastern side of the empire had multiple military commanders, and the emperors there managed to maintain control over these military leaders. In the west, however, there was only one military commander, and successively weaker emperors began to lose control over them.

By the mid-470s, the last remnants of the Western Roman Empire were decaying to the point of disappearance. The last western emperor to be approved by the eastern leadership, Julius Nepos, made a mistake that cost him his throne: He appointed a military commander named Orestes who would soon overthrow him.

The usurpation of a ruler by military generals is an old story in history throughout the world, and there is nothing remarkable about it. Yet, what Orestes did next after deposing Julius Nepos was unusual.

Instead of taking the imperial throne for himself or appointing his brother or another adult, Orestes decided to appoint his teenage son, Romulus, as emperor. The reasons for Orestes’s action are not clear, yet it does appear that this was a way for this commanding general to maintain his military office while filling the imperial throne with someone whom he could control. Finally, the western empire had changed to the point where the emperor was a complete figurehead.

Through his actions, Orestes had involved his own son, Romulus, within his own political machinations in at least three different harmful ways:

1.  Rebellion. The father had made his own son into a usurper. The western and eastern emperors had by custom concurred on the imperial succession of the other half of the empire. Since Julius Nepos had been deposed without the permission of the east, Orestes had undertaken the illegal overthrow of a legitimate emperor.

2.  Hypocrisy. The father, Orestes, nominally was serving his son but, in reality, the father was controlling his son for his own political purposes.

3.  Endangerment. Orestes was himself deposed and executed within a year of his own coup against Julius Nepos by Odoacer, a Germanic king. For some reason, Odoacer decided not to kill Romulus but merely to depose him. Still, the young son had been placed into a position of danger and risk-of-life by his father.

The life of Jesus presents a different picture of fathers and sons. It demonstrates to us a heavenly father and his love for his adopted children on earth. The Lord’s Prayer itself begins with an affirmation of our relationship to God, when it says, “Our Father”. Consider what Jesus and his original followers said that runs directly counter to the three items above:

1.  Legitimacy. Adopted sons and daughters have a full share of the inheritance of their heavenly father. The children are legitimate because they are of the same house (family) as their father. They are also privileged to call upon him in order to see his will done on earth as it is in heaven, and then to participate in his plans to make that will a reality.

2.  Truth and Reality. Rather than seeking to use us for selfish purposes, our heavenly father earnestly seeks to bring his children into a full measure of maturity. Those who are faithful with a little are then given much more to be faithful over. Authority in the kingdom of heaven is given to us those who are clothed in humility.

3.  Protection. The shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The children of God have no need for “bargained-for exchanges”, where a weaker person lays claims on higher authorities through legal processes. The hairs on their heads are numbered, and they are fully entitled to all of the provision and protection of heaven.